Fast-Tracking Leaders to Be Culturally Agile and Self-Aware

By LaShell Tinder Mar 30, 2016

HR professionals play a critical role in building future leaders who possess emotional intelligence and self-awareness, which in turn cultivates an environment that is diverse and inclusive, and espouses a culture marked by adaptability, openness, empathy and transparency.

I have long been interested in what makes for a successful leader, one who feels personally enriched and engenders a culture of engaged employees

Chip Conley, former CEO of Joie de Vivre and author of Emotional Equations, researched Fortune 500 companies to identify leading CEOs who possessed a high emotional intelligence. Interviews revealed that all possessed an acute self-awareness.

Anthony K. Tjan, CEO of The Cue Ball Group, LLC and author of Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck wrote: “Without self-awareness, you cannot understand your strengths and weaknesses, your ‘super powers’ versus your ‘kryptonite.’ It is self-awareness that allows the best business-builders to walk the tightrope of leadership: projecting conviction while simultaneously remaining humble enough to be open to new ideas and opposing opinions.”

Is self-awareness enough to achieve profitability and maintain an engaged workforce within an expanding global economy ripe with recruitment and retention challenges? Self-awareness is best used as a building block to expand competencies of emotional intelligence. According to Alena Abbrent, manager with Edward Lynx, “Self-awareness, or the ability to reflect on one’s performance, allows an individual to adapt to situations and cooperate well with others; however, also important are drive and personal accountability.”

Paula Caligiuri, author of Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals suggests seven HR initiatives to improve cultural agility and develop future global leaders:

  • Employee development opportunities with international assignments.
  • International volunteerism.
  • Cross-cultural training.
  • Language training.
  • Global project teams.
  • Global leadership development programs in international rotation.
  • Effective branding highlighting the organization’s global image.

However, with tighter budgets in many organizations, it may be difficult to identify solutions using these tools. One method is to design a well-rounded professional development program, which combines group project teams and international assignments with cross-functional and cross business unit experiential learning opportunities. Buy-in of top management is critical as well as a company culture committed to people development. It also requires rigorous selection criteria to identify high potentials and high performers. Successful programs include regular feedback and provide opportunities to build cultural agility and self-awareness.

At Skanska, our professional development program focuses on improving leadership skills encompassing decision-making, self-awareness, cultural agility, perseverance and adaptability via three one-week modules and an international assignment. The modules provide self-assessments with feedback and virtual business cases for global project teams to present to senior management. We challenge participants to flex their self-awareness and cultural agility muscles while building greater collaboration across our business through shared learnings and the transfer of best practices. 

I recently attended a module and took part in an instructor-led team dynamics presentation on self-awareness and cultural agility. The five-member team represented a cross-section of business disciplines from five countries. In order to determine how we work in a group, the instructor asked us to stand by the poster of the animal (lion, fox, or St. Bernard) with whom we identified most (no further instruction was given). Four of the five-member team congregated by the lion and I wondered: “How can they work as a team effectively if they all want to dominate?” Next, participants took two self-assessment quizzes designed to measure differences in responses when no stress is involved vs. when stress is present in situational questions.

The first assessment is designed to measure self-awareness while the second is designed to measure cultural agility—how do you work with others who are different than you. The group demonstrated a high degree of self-awareness with only one member switching after the initial self-assessment. The second assessment generated movement from most of the participants. During the discussion, participants shared ideas of how to work differently to better engage with those who have a different way of working, thinking or behaving and how to better handle ambiguity. Those who gravitated toward the fox or St. Bernard found posing open-ended questions by a lion helped engage conversation and drive a more inclusive environment with diverse opinions. The St. Bernard can create a calming environment to work through stressful situations and improve group dynamics among the isolated foxes and dominant lions.

Professional development programs, group project teams and cultural training provide a structure where organizations can encourage self-assessment, provide regular feedback and develop cultural agility. Working with the business to create high global performance in these types of opportunities will hone these skills in our future leaders and provide the organization with a powerful way to compete profitably in a global economy and reinforce a company culture rooted in people development.

LaShell Tinder is a global mobility and HR professional with Skanska USA, a construction and development firm headquartered in New York City.


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